Saturday, May 21, 2005

In a Station of the Metro

    THE apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals on a wet, black bough.

    Ezra Pound

Surely "In a Station of the Metro" wakens Pound's mastery of this talent and suggests that Eliot was not without justification in calling him il miglior fabbro. It begins a bit flat: a place, underground, of public transport and as simple as pedestrian directions. Only there is something Eastern beneath the Western veneer. One of the secrets of superior literature: there's always more to be measured beyond than what is before us bookworms. Pound has called upon the gods and Confucius translated Homer.

Frequently curt and irascible, Ezra Loomis Pound was an incessant talker, "a barbarian on the loose in a museum." He drew his themes from Confucian ethics, classical mythology, economic theory and other seemingly disparate sources and worked on this verse periodically from 1911 to 1913. He might have been only a difficult neighbor, but it was between 1908 and 1920 when he published a group of books that established his literary standing and enabled him to turn to journalism for a living. This particular structure of In a Station at the Metro is from the 1916 edition of Lustra. As the others in this node attest this is a startlingly visual piece of verse possessing the ability to leave readers thinking for a long time.

The Metro is the Paris subway system and this is certainly one of the finest and perhaps the first true Imagist poem. He explained that the poem was the effect he felt when he "saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman" as he was getting off a train at the metro. Initially Pound composed a 30-line poem and destroyed it; after six months he wrote a shorter poem, also destroyed; and after another year, with the Japanese hokku in mind, he arrived at a poem which requires every one of its twenty words, including the six words of its title.

Through several publications spaces and commas appeared and disappeared until the poem turned radically on its semicolon to overlay the two images. This marks Pound's first use of juxtaposition as a structural device in his poetry. There is a distinction to be made between its various stages of composition as one expert explains:

    (Some have) neglected to consider the care that Pound himself took to indicate to the reader how that gap should be "imaginatively leaped." The earliest printing of "In a Station" in the April 1913 issue of Poetry was spaced and punctuated thus:
      The apparition     of these faces     in the crowd
      Petals on a wet, black bough .
    The same version of the poem then appeared in the New Freewoman on 15 August 1913. In the meantime however, Pound had published an account of the genesis of the poem in T.P.'s Weekly, on 6 June 1913, where the poem is quoted as follows:
      The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

      Petals on a wet, black bough.
    In other words, the poem has now assumed the format it has in each of its appearances in book, as opposed to periodical, form, from the Elkin Mathews edition of Lustra (1916) onwards, with the exception of the colon as opposed to semi-colon at the end of the first line. That this version was still regarded by Pound as provisional, however, is indicated by his reversal to the earlier spacing and punctuation for the poem's appearance in the August New Freewoman, two months after his piece in T.P.'s Weekly. It seems likely that the latter publication's lay-out of three narrow columns to the page meant that the spacing of "In a Station" had to be closed up and regularized, whether or not this was Pound's intention at the time; the New Freewornan version would indicate, in fact, that it wasn't.
His revolutionary idea was deep and broad. Pound had telescoped the poem from thirty lines to a single sentence and later offered a detailed account of the origins and compositional history of the "Metro" poem a year later in his article "Vorticism," The Fortnightly Review 571 (Sept. 1, 1914):
    "Three years ago (1911) in Paris I got out of a "metro" train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying, and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation ... not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. It was just that -- a "pattern," or hardly a pattern, if by "pattern" you mean something with a "repeat" in it. But it was a word, the beginning, for me, of a language in colour. I do not mean that I was unfamiliar with the kindergarten stories about colours being like tones in music. I think that sort of thing is nonsense. If you try to make notes permanently correspond with particular colours, it is like tying narrow meanings to symbols.
    "That evening, in the Rue Raynouard, I realised quite vividly that if I were a painter, or if I had, often, that kind of emotion, or even if I had the energy to get paints and brushes and keep at it, I might found a new school of painting, of "non-representative" painting, a painting that would speak only by arrangements in colour. ....
    "That is to say, my experience in Paris should have gone into paint ...
    "The 'one image poem' is a form of super-position, that is to say it is one idea set on top of another. I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion. I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work 'of second intensity.' Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence: --
    'The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
    Petals, on a wet, black bough.'
    "I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.
    "This particular sort of consciousness has not been identified with impressionist art. I think it is worthy of attention."
Its construction is both typographic and metric and as Wharfinger alludes to there is a connotative power to the word apparition in the first line. One critic has called it "the single word which lifts the couplet from bald statement to poetry." With one word Pound packs an amazing metaphor. That he has a refined understanding of several European languages, especially French and Italian, is an unshakable fact. In French apparition commonly carries the special meaning of the way something appears to a viewer at the precise moment it is perceived. Since the poem was written in France about a French subway station it's plausible that Pound played on its false equivalent in English as he composed the poem. And because "apparition" means what it does, he is able to convey the feeling of amazed discovery that such a mental picture in such a place must induce. It seems to demonstrate flawlessly Pound's notion of the Image.

Meanings are not so important and we must move on as Wharfinger suggests and look at another interesting aspect of the power and energy lodged into this small phrase. What is important is the effect, the mood. "In the 'Metro' hokku," Pound wrote to a friend, "I was careful, I think, to indicate spaces between the rhythmic units, and I want them observed."

By 1913, if not from its beginning, the "vision of the blossom" became associated in Pound's mind with Japanese haiku. The image that comes to mind for this poetry lover is oriental in nature and is much like the Japanese art of ikebana the decorative form of flower arranging. An art that seeks to create a harmony of linear construction, rhythm, and color. The purpose is to emphasize the linear aspects of the arrangement and the art includes the vase, stems, leaves, and branches, as well as the flowers. The entire structure of a Japanese flower arrangement is based on three main lines that symbolize heaven, earth, and humankind. In the poem petals are people stationed upon a stem in a screaming jam-packed dirty eared 'jug jug.'

This is an underground train envisioned as a horizontal and blackened branch side by side with beautiful faces in the windows that passed the poet who likens them to flower blossoms. This calls to mind several ancient haikus like Flowers Faded and Blossoms Left Behind. They all share a simple montage of one concrete image, which attempts to share with the reader the poet's rare perception. The heart of the poem lies neither in the apparition nor in the petals, but in the mental process, which leaps from one to the other. While it merely hints to an off rhyme in crowd / bough, the modern meter of the metro moves Pound's rhythmic idea into an organic space. What is even more astonishing about the distilled handful of syllables is that even though there are no verbs one can hear them echo.

I would like to think of Pound not as a neighbor but as an uncle. Uncle Ezra. He'd be a grand embarrassment to most of my gentler family, a hotheaded uncle self-exiled to London, Rapallo, or Paris. He'd hurdle his beauty into the midst of ugliness with big pronouncements for saving society, usually wrong, often revolting and scandalous. I would have to feel baffled and terribly embarrassed. But he'd be like no one else's uncle, and there's that thing he can do with words to wonder about. He would not sit on the front stoop and tell the neighbor kids about it; he would in fact shout to them just what's wrong with global banking. And if he was my uncle he just might, one day, show me those thirty lines and tell me why he really threw them away.


Public domain text taken for the the article Vorticism is from RPO -- Ezra Loomis Pound : In a Station of the Metro
Jan 17 2004.

On "In a Station of the Metro"
Accessed Jan 17 2004.

Public domain text taken for the poem is from The Poetry Corner
Accessed Jan 17 2004.

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